The Poets’ Birds ~ Flocks

A true murmuration — the mysteriously coordinated flight of thousands of starlings or other birds — is a wonder to behold. On the other hand, the sights and sounds of smaller migrating flocks stir the soul equally, inviting us to stop, and marvel.

Despite the winding down of our autumn migration season, birds continue to arrive: white ibis threading through clouds; unseen geese or cranes calling to their kind; a sudden upwelling of grackles; kettles of hawks rising into invisibility.

On the day after Christmas, newly arrived sandhill cranes browsed the prairies, while flocks of red-winged blackbirds mixed in apparent comfort with the snow geese feeding in harvested rice fields.

Snow Geese ~ Anser caerulescens

Elsewhere, the constant rising and falling of anonymous dark birds brought to mind a poem published by John Updike in the October 27, 1962 issue of the New Yorker: a reflection on a remarkable phenomenon titled “The Great Scarf of Birds.”

Playing golf on Cape Ann in October
I saw something to remember.
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.

As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron filings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the trees
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.

“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.
The rise of the fairway above us was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad
but grass.

And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.

Long had it been since my heart
had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great
scarf.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Great-Tailed Grackle

Great-Tailed Grackle ~ Quiscalus mexicanus

Boat-tailed, Common, and Great-Tailed Grackles appear across Texas, their populations ebbing and flowing as the seasons change. Chattering among themselves, providing amusement to humans during mating competitions, and generally showing off to one another, they’re exceedingly social birds. 

In fall and winter, enormous flocks of Great-Tailed Grackles gather in ‘roost trees’ that sometimes contain thousands of birds; their morning flights show up on radar as expanding ‘doughnuts’ called roost rings.

Other birds, especially Purple Martins, often create the same effect. In Houston, there are locations where the various birds’ morning routines are so well known that people click on the radar just to watch and record. (For a beautiful animated .gif of a Houston roost ring, click here.)

Great-tailed Grackles don’t limit themselves to trees, of course. They’ll also fill electrical lines in the early evening or, in the case of my neighborhood, take over our local HEB grocery store. When the birds move in, there’s nothing to be done but laugh. They line the store’s rooftop and perch atop cart returns, but they also wander under and over cars, sit on SUV luggage racks, ride on grocery carts being pushed by bemused shoppers, and search through the outside garden displays for the occasional insect.

Poet Susan Elizabeth Howe has perfectly described their behavior and captured something of their mysterious appeal in her poem titled, “What Is a Grackle?” I don’t think she visited my supermarket while writing it, but she certainly could have.

A comfort common to Southwest desert
parking lots, a familiar, a messenger,
an overlooked angel oiled by asphalt,
consolation of the casino, supermarket
spiritual guide picking at a free-today
hot dog, a dropped grape or lentil,
its purple-green head iridescent,
its long keel of a tail.
Black birds but not blackbirds
with their showy epaulettes blood-red
as a war field. Grackles glint
like lacquered ebony, the females brunhildas,
if by brunhilda you mean “brown-headed,”
not the German “ready for battle.” Blind
to centuries of borders, of battles, they waddle
stiff-legged at your feet, a janitorial sweep
to their tails, checking cart tires and light poles
for moths, beetles, singing their seven songs —
slides, whistles, wheezes, catcalls, chirps,
murmurs, clucks — to console you
for your losses: stolen cars, mortgage
payments spun to mist at a roulette table,
the beloved who breathed fire and scorched
your wedding clothes. Folly, wreckage,
they mutter, down among the packs
of backerboard and spackle. We’ve fallen
from Mayan temples. In a past life
we prophesied. In a past life we were gods.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Prairies and People and Photos, Oh, My!

Tallgrass prairie in autumn ~ Chase County, Kansas

Over the course of nearly a decade, I’ve written here of Texas prairies I’ve come to love: Nash, Attwater, and Brazoria; the prairie-with-trees called Sandylands; coastal prairies like Anahuac and Aransas. From my first stumbling and laughable attempts to ‘find’ the Nash Prairie to my documentation of the land’s recovery after a prescribed burn at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the intricacy, beauty, and fragility of our remaining prairies.

In time, stirred by historical accounts of life on the prairies and botanists’ journals, I began to travel. Five years ago, I celebrated my 70th birthday with a weeks-long trip through prairies, grasslands, and bottomlands in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. I discovered the beauty of autumn grasses and saw my first Maximilian sunflowers — although it took some time to learn what I had seen.

Maximilian sunflowers

Through it all, innumerable people shared their own knowledge of and enthusiasm for our prairies and the plants they contain. Photographers offered tips, and land managers and docents took time to introduce me to their own special places. I learned to carry a tow strap in the trunk of my car, and made friends with the deputies and game wardens who stopped to be sure the woman in the ditch wasn’t dead.

Eventually, a choice had to be made. Either The Task at Hand would become a blog devoted solely to the natural world, or a second site would be required. At that point, I began Lagniappe: a blog devoted primarily to photographs of native Texas plants, although insects, birds — and alligators! — have claimed their own share of attention. What I never expected was that Lagniappe — a site taking its name from the Cajun phrase meaning ‘a little something extra’ — would itself be the recipient of lagniappe: the Native Plant Society of Texas’s Digital Media Award for 2021.** 

To say that I was surprised — even shocked — by the wholly unexpected award would be an understatement. Still, the timing was apt. This is Native Plant Week in Texas, and Lagniappe stands as a salutary reminder that every week offers something of beauty or interest from the natural world.

Even more remarkably, four of my five submissions to this year’s Native Plant Society photo contest were chosen as winners. Each year, members of the organization are invited to submit one photo from each of Texas’s twelve ecoregions. In 2019, I sumitted three photos; last year, I submitted four. This year, having traveled more extensively, I was able to submit photos from five regions; to have four of them recognized was pure delight.

Because of the rule that none of the entries could have been previously published, none has been seen on my blog. Rather than reposting the winners here, I’d invite you to visit this post on Lagniappe to see them.

I thought it interesting that a Native Plant Society Member recently asked the same question that commenters on Lagniappe sometimes ask: “How do you find these things?” My response always has been the same. Early on, I took to heart the advice offered by Georgia O’Keeffe, who liked to say, “Take time to look.” It’s the results of looking that have filled my blogs, and now it’s time to begin looking again.

 

Comments always are welcome.
** Observant readers may have noticed that the title on the plaque isn’t “Lagniappe,” but the blog’s tagline. A new, ‘edited’ plaque is on its way, and I’ll update the image when it arrives.

Walden on the Wing

Broom in one hand and coffee balanced in the other, I made my way to the dawn-lit patio, intending to sweep up birdseed scattered by my messy eaters.

One quick sweep of the broom caused an even quicker flutter. Startled, I bent to look into the tangled leaves of a Hawaiian schefflera, and found the source of the flutter: a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) hardly larger than a penny. Lizards and snails visit the patio frequently, but I’d never encountered a butterfly there, so I backed away, put down the broom, and fetched the camera.

Perhaps instinctively, the creature had chosen the darkest and least accessible corner for its refuge. Fearful that the use of flash would send it flying, I took a few photos to document its presence and came inside. An hour later, the hairstreak still lingered, perfectly still, in the same spot. After two hours, and then three, it occurred to me that it might be newly hatched, and was drying its wings.

By that time, the sun was shedding more light on the schefflera, so I reclaimed the camera and clipped a few leaves from the plant for a better view of the tiny creature. As I clipped, the butterfly never moved, and the photo you see is the result. An hour later, it had flown.

Initially, I had planned to finish my sweeping and coffee drinking before visiting a local nature center for a few hours, but the time I spent watching the hairstreak put an end to that. No matter. As John Burroughs wrote in his essay “The Exhilarations of the Road”:

A man must invest himself near at hand and in common things, and be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart and the sweetness of a walk over the round earth.

The presence of the hairstreak, a creature both common and near at hand, seemed worthy of investment, however moderate the return. It also brought to mind Mary Oliver’s affirmation of Burrough’s perspective in her poem “Going to Walden.”

It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
the rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Dickcissel

Male Dickcissel ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

A decade ago, historian, film buff, naturalist, and Erath County rancher Jack Matthews introduced me to the Dickcissel (Spiza americana): a bird he’d found returning to his Flying Hat Ranch after years of management practices that included minimal grazing and reseeding with native grasses.

Dickcissels require grassland habitats, but they’re rarely picky about the land’s composition. In summer, they appear in native prairies and restored grasslands, but they also nest in lightly grazed pastures, hayfields, and fallow agricultural fields. Occasionally, they can be spotted along fencerows and roadsides.

Still, it wasn’t until last summer that I came across the bird. Too far away for a photo, it attracted my attention by its song. At the very top of a dead tree along the Brazoria refuge auto route, the song was musical — and loud. At the time I laughed, thinking that any female within a miles-wide radius might have heard that song. 

It wasn’t until this year that I finally found another Dickcissel: a male in breeding colors attracting attention to himself by his song. Perched atop another small dead tree — this one next to the windmill where earlier this year I’d found a Loggerhead Shrike — he was within camera range, and determined to stay put for the sake of attracting a potential mate.

When I returned a week later, he still was there, singing his heart out from the same topmost branch. After finding him perched and singing a third time, I felt a bit sorry for him, but the next time I passed by the windmill he was gone; the flowers were blooming even more profusely, but the time of singing had ended, and the voice of the Dickcissel no longer was heard in the land.

Apart from the pleasure of finally meeting the bird, the Dickcissel brought to mind Marjorie Saiser’s poem “The Nobody Bird.” It’s a fine tribute to Dickcissels, and a reminder that other ‘nobodies’ existing in the world also have their songs.

 

           I’m nobody! Who are you?
               ~ Emily Dickinson
The woman leading the bird walk
is excited because she thinks
for a minute the bird
is one she doesn’t have
on her life list,
and then she says,”Oh, it’s
just a dickcissel.”
I raise my binoculars
to bring the black throat patch
and dark eye
into the center of a circle.
I see how the dickcissel
clings to a stem
when he sings, how
he tilts his head back,
opens his throat.
The group follows
the leader to higher ground.
The wind comes up; white blossoms
of the elderberry dip and
right themselves in a rocking motion
again and again. An oriole
flies into the cottonwood,
the gray catbird into
the tossing ripening sumac.
The nobody bird
holds on:
holds on and sings.
 

Comments always are welcome.